Monday, June 6, 2011     17:19

Aspinwall City of Colon City?

In January 1848 when the miner John August Sutter found gold deposits in California, a radical change came about in the economy of Panama, inasmuch as it became the shortest route to California.

Travelers arrived from New York or New Orleans in boats that docked in the port of Chagres, to continue their journey by mule to Panama. It was quite an adventure that lasted for six days, in which there were all sorts of hazards and hardships to withstand. There were rains, mosquitoes, heat, and wild animals. On occasions, the problem was hold-up bandits along the road. Despite the hardships and the high cost of $50 a person, gold-rushers continued to arrive in large numbers to Panama, infusing the economy with a lot of money.

Historically, we have been a service-oriented economy, as was evident even then. Bars, brothels, and gaming houses could be found everywhere and the economy flourished rapidly in the capital city. The inhabitants of the interior abandoned their cattle ranching and farming, headed to the big city to get rich quick. This exodus was reenacted repeatedly throughout our history (the railroad era, the days of the French canal and American canal, and more recently, the World War II years).

If the unending wave of travelers were undergoing every hardship to cross the Isthmus of Panama en route to California, would it not be a true commercial success if a railroad connected the cities of Colon and Panama? The crossing would be much faster, but above all, it would be safer and more comfortable.

This idea was the brainchild of William Henry Aspinwall, Henry Chauncey, and John Lloyd Stephens who took the initiative to form a company. Previously, the first two had established a joint-venture to assist in the transportation of mail and passengers from one coast of the United States to the other by means of boats that would make port calls in Panama or Colon. The Isthmus crossing was done at the time by mules or canoes. Once in the designated port, another vessel of the same company picked up the passengers and carried them to their final destination.

Backed by this type of experience, it was no surprise that they would think of building a trans-isthmian railroad. The route through Panama was the shortest and cheapest, and it was less hazardous than trying to risk it by land across the United States in stagecoaches. This was the case in the colonial period, as they were exposed to the attacks of the Indians, the rugged mountains, gigantic rivers, and the drastic changes in temperature they were subjected to en route, all of which made this voyage quite difficult.

To take the Cape of Horns route, which meant going around the American continent was too long and expensive. From New York to San Francisco, it would be approximately 13,000 miles, while the Panama route was only 5,000 miles: a substantial difference. There was the possibility of going the way of Nicaragua, which could be considered an alternative, although a longer one than the Panama route. T

he busy throng of travelers that went by way of Panama, in pursuit of the California gold, brought along diverse habits, vices, and diseases, which they spread throughout the city. The citizenry watched in amazement how the daily routine was irretrievably altered, as they tried to adapt to such a disparate avalanche. Diseases and illnesses, stick-ups and robberies of travelers, was the chaos observed by the trio of Aspinwall, Chauncey, and Stephens when they joined together to build the Panama Railroad.

The first step was to obtain exclusive rights, which was granted by the government of New Granada for said purpose. This was granted in the Stephens-Paredes contract in March 1850. Works began on May 2, 1850. There were innumerable obstacles to surmount; as there were also many deaths among the workers—the exact number of which has never been known.

On January 28, 1855, the first train crossed the Isthmus, bearing the distinction of being the seventh railroad in the world, preceded only by Great Britain (1814), United States (1827), Canada (1836), Cuba 1838), Mexico, Peru (both in 1850), and Brazil (1855) just a few days before the one in Panama. The Panama Railroad Company was, from its inception, an extraordinary economic success; its shares paid dividends as high as $295 each. The one-way fare was $25. The length of the railroad was a mere forty-seven miles.

It was the first trans-continental railroad of the time. Undoubtedly, Aspinwall, with his gruff personality and great leadership, had been the determining factor in the successful completion of the railroad across the Isthmus.

At a ceremony commemorating these works, held in Colon on February 29, 1852, and to honor the memory of Stephens who had died that year, present was Don Victoriano de Diego Paredes, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nueva Granada, now on his way to Washington to serve an appointment as ambassador. In a moment of euphoria, he addressed the audience and, on a personal note, raising his glass of champagne proposed that the name of the City of Colon be changed to that of Aspinwall City, in honor of this much respected and admired man, who was the creator of the railroad.

There was immediate applause and more toasting for such a grand idea. During this ceremony, the following items were placed for safekeeping in a bronze coffer: a chronicle of the event taking place; a copy of the Stephens-Paredes contract; the February 5, 1852, issue of the New York Herald that had just arrived in Colon; as well as one coin each from the United States, France, Great Britain, and New Granada. Maybe later Don Victoriano would give more serious thought to his extemporaneous comments, and the repercussions that would be brought about by his proposal.

The Americans immediately accepted the suggestion, made by none other than such a distinguished personality of the world of Colombian politics, and they began calling the second railroad terminal city by the name of Aspinwall.

The Government of Colombia had to put up vigorous opposition to such a change, to the extent of issuing a decree ordering the return or destruction of any mail addressed to the cited city instead of to Colon. It further banned the processing of any document whose contents mentioned Aspinwall City.

The Government of Colombia, taking advantage of the gift of a statue of the Discoverer of America made by the Empress of France, Doña Eugenia de Montijo, further ordered that it should be erected in the city of Colon. (See "The Four Voyages of the Statue of Christopher Columbus.")

The decisive, patriotic, and firm stance adopted by the Government of Nueva Granada made it possible to retain the name of the city of Colon permanently.

And all because of a champagne toast!...